George Steiner: Making a Homeland for the Mind[1]

Georg Lukács: Eine Autobiographie im Dialog, 307 pp., Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
Éva Fekete an Éva Karády (Editors): Georg Lukács: His Life in Pictures and Documents, 265 pp. Budapest: Corvina


Great intelligence can be a homeland. “Before 1945”, remarks Georg Lukács, “I never travelled in Europe with a legal passport.” A Hungarian, he wrote almost the totality of his works in German. Exile, more or less clandestine, in Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, was Lukács’s natural habitat. He held no university post till the age of sixty. His most consequential intervention in actual revolutionary politics, the “theses” on the relation between the agricultural and the industrial proletariat which he propounded at the time of the Béla Kun programme and the Second Congress of the Hungarian Communist Party, appeared under the pseudonym “Blum”.

Yet, in another sense, Lukács was deep-rooted. He was curtly dismissive in reference to his own Judaism, but a Jew to the tip of hist fingers. Unhoused, peregrine, domestic in ostracism, he is one of that tragic constellation – Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Herbert Marcuse – of Jewish abstractionists, possessed by a messianic rage for logic, for systematic order in the social condition of man. Lukács’ Marxism is, in essence, a refusal of the world’s incoherence, of the murderous stupidities whereby men and women misconduct their lives. Like the other Jewish self-exiles whose radicalism out of Central Europe has so incisively marked the century, Lukács is an heir in immanence to the transcendent absolute of Spinoza.

He made his choice in 1919. He moved into the Marxist promise of social justice or, rather, into the Marxist promise of method, of a contract with reason and a rational grasp of human affairs, as he would into a house. It was to be his only dwelling, and he never left it. When the Party restored to Lukács in 1967 the card it had taken from him because of his participation in the Hungarian resurrection of 1956 and in the Imre Nagy regime, the pariah riposted that he had never been outside the KPU. It had, temporally, left him. At times of extreme pressure, during the late 1950s and early 60s, Lukács was urged to emigrate, to accept one or another of the prestigious academic solicitations from “outside”. Kádár would have let him go. But Lukács never wavered. To him the capitalist world was not only historically doomed, but a domain of contingency, almost of anarchy. Even at its cruellest, the lodging of necessity, as Hegel and Marx had, after Kant, constructed it, was preferable.

Here, as Lukács and the Frankfurt School plainly, agonizingly perceived, a solution may be found for the problem of how abstract thought, the life of the intellect, can be knit to historical reality, to the exactions and dignity of concrete existence. No member of the intelligentsia since Rousseau had experienced more acutely, nearer to his nerve-ands, than Lukács, the menace of alienation. At home in Marxism, in the conviction that his philosophic-aesthetic critique bore immediately on the material facts of current history and society, he could endure, indeed prosper in the marginality of his biographical circumstances. When first I called on him, in the winter of 1957-8, in a house still pock-marked with shell-bursts and grenade-splinters, I stood speechless before the armada of his printed works, as it crowded the shelves. Lukács seized on my puerile wonder and blazed out of his chair in a motion at once vulnerable and amused: “You want to know how one gets work done? It’s easy. House-arrest, Steiner, house-arrest!”

Informed by his doctors that he had not long to live, Lukács, in 1971, agreed to set down a memoir of his personal life and thought. He did this in stenographic style, under the title Gelebtes Denken. But his strength was failing. He agreed to use this sketch as the basis for a series of interviews with Erzsébet Vezér and István Eörsi. These took place in May 1971 and was tape-recorded. The text before us is, as a result, many-layered. It is “an autobiography in dialogue”, together with Lukács’s own fragmentary jottings. Eörsi has edited and prefaced the original, which is, in turn, translated in German by Hans-Hennig Paetzke. To complicate matters further, the editor has, at certain points, amended or clarified the tapes, inserting passages from Lukács’s written torso. Questions arise, inevitably, as to Lukács’s own intentions, with their intricate interplay of private candour and public legacy. They arise also with regard to editorial treatment and the translation of Hungarian expressions. turns of phrase, allusions, which Lukács was, himself, using in ways influenced by a life-time of composition and reflection in and through German. Gelebtes Denken has elements of a palimpsest: it invites decoding. Its fundamental authenticity, however, is evident. Lukács’s voice, the often sardonic, nervous pulse of his idiom and motions of spirit, comes through unmistakably.

There is scant comfort in this book for the liberal persuasion. Nor is there any solace for those, who (naïvely?) harbour the belief that any man of obvious intellectual stature and moral awareness who has committed his strength to Communism must, in the face of the Gulag and of Soviet realities, end his days in more or less avowed disenchantment and remorse. Lukács’s self-portrait is that of a “hard-liner”. A quotation from Hebbel’s Judith seems to have been talismanic to him: “Wenn Du zwischen mich und meine Tat eine Sünde stellst: wer bin ich, dass ich mit Dir darüber hadere, dass ich mich Dir entziehen sollte!“ The sentence is not easy to translate or interpret. “If/when you interpose sin between myself and my deed, who am I to quarrel with you, what justification would there be for me to withdraw from you!” Lukács sees this “affirmative query” as the embodiment of the ethischen Konflikt, or ethical dilemma. There are situations – perhaps all genuine political and revolutionary situations are such – in which one must act rightly (richtig), even “justly”, yet “unethically” (unethisch).

Pressed to justify his mainly passive but, on occasion, positive stance towards the Moscow trials, Lukács formulates a twofold apologia. At the time (he was himself a refugee in Stalin’s capital, an individual, whose cosmopolitan, Jewish marginality made of him a potential victim), protest would have been futile. It would have meant suicide and, in consequence, the removal of an active soul and brain from the world-struggle against Fascism and Nazism. Lukács retrospective defence is subtler. Do we, he challenges, worry over the legality, over the due process in respect of evidence, of the successive trials of the Girondins, of Danton, of Robespierre? Do we not, on the contrary, observe these episodes as necessary crises in the ultimately humane logic and libertarian dynamics of the French Revolution? Why, then, not extend the same understanding to those internal, factional struggles which, according to Lukács, were an inevitable part of the evolution of the Soviet Union towards industrial modernity, towards the sense of national and “Stalinist” cohesion, which was to make possible the defeat of Hitler? Within this general perspective, moreover, Lukács draws pointed distinctions. He does not disguise his distaste for Trotsky and Trotskyism. He judges them as agencies of anarchic muddle which had to be eliminated. Psychologically, we can sense in this attitude the contempt of the mandarin for the freelance.

Lukács did not disguise from his visitors and intimates that the problem of Stalin was compelling to his thoughts and sensibility. Was Stalinism a monstrous piece of bad luck, a venomous and “dialectically” extraneous singularity in the rationale of history? Was it a necessary phase, an aggravated Bonapartism, through which the proletarian revolution must pass? Or was it an endemic and therefore potentially recursive possibility in the very structure of Marxism-Leninism, especially when the latter is installed in an economically and educationally underdeveloped society?

If this memoir is to be trusted, Lukács’s sense of this cardinal question or, at the least, the sense he wished to convey to those who read and come after him, had become more stringent with age. The “Stalinist” thread runs through the whole text. Stalin had been right against Mehring’s conception or Plekhanov’s of a Marxist aesthetics somehow distinct from the materialist totality of Marxism as a whole. Stalin had grasped, long before Lukács and in implicit repudiation of Lukács’s own earlier works, the comprehensive meaning of Engels’s “dialectics of nature”. Stalinism is not to be understood as a species of “irrationalism”, comparable to that which we find in Fascist and Nazi totalitarianism. It is, rather, a kind of “hyper-rationalism” in which theoretical concepts and a (just) view of long-range strategic goals are subordinated to immediate tactics. In Stalin, the tactician prevailed damagingly over the theoretician and the strategist. The Hitler-Stalin Pact, argues Lukács, was tactically correct. What Stalin did, however, was to draw the false strategic conclusions from his tactical insight. Hence his misjudgement of the motives and conduct of the Western powers during the Second World War, hence his blind persecution of genuine anti-Fascist elements in the Communist International and the occupied territories. But could anyone except Stalin have withstood the terrible impact of German invasion or made of backward Russia one of the super-powers in the post-war era?

At the moment of the Soviet intervention in Prague, in 1968, Lukács is rumoured to have said something to the effect that, perhaps, the course of socialist-revolutionary history since 1917 had been a dead and, that the entire experiment would have to be begun all over again “in some other time and place”. Gelebtes Denken is made of sterner stuff. Despite the human suffering, the waste of human and material resources which it brought about, despite its vulgarisation and even negation of the authentic Marxist concept of “historical necessity”, Stalinism amounts to a phase of positive achievement.

Certain reflexes of sensibility, certain uses of language follow on such assessment. Reflecting on the show-trials and political executions in post-war Hungary, Lukács speaks of “ein päventiver Mord” (a preventive murder). If the German translation is accurate, Lukács qualifies the tortures whereby false confessions were exacted from such victims as László Rajk as “bedenklich”, i.e., as “giving ground for thoughtful concern”. On the eve of his death and in the sanctuary of his eminence, Lukács had no tactical need to resort to such expressions. They represent that spell which brute power, which terror in praxis often exercise on the imagination, on the nervous system, of the scholar. They represent also, I think, that zest for casuistry, for the formally brilliant defence of the indefensible, which Thomas Mann had noted and detailed in Lukács when he made him the original of Naphta in The Magic Mountain.

The personal, critical relation to Mann, as Lukács recalls it, as it is eloquent in photographs and documents across decades, was central to Lukács’s literary theory. What Balzac had been to Marx, the author of Buddenbrooks was to Lukács. Here was an arch-conservative patrician, an explicit defender of high-bourgeois values, whose genius for insight, whose sheer seriousness as an artist, made of his novels the irrefutable critique of a dying society. Lukács saw in Mann’s fictions resplendent proof for the tenet that “classical realism” cannot lie, that whatever the conscious ideology and class-interests of the great realist (Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, Mann), his findings will be “radical” and, in the true sense of the word, “revolutionary”. Mann, in turn, found in Lukács an incomparable “reader between the lines”.

Contacts with Brecht were notoriously ambiguous, even polemic. To Brecht, Lukács was the incarnation of the Hegelian academic legislating to the arts without being himself endowed with any creative instincts. Lukács recognised Brecht’s talents. But Brecht was, in the final analysis, a bohemian, an exhibitionist of prodigious manipulative ruses who had borrowed from Marxism certain rhetorical short-cuts. Brecht flourished in the Expressionist milieu; to Lukács, Expressionism, for all its logic in the febrile historical moment, was merely the prelude to the surrealist and modernist crazes which he so magisterially rejected. In these memoirs, the antagonism mellows. In late years, the two men met on terms of amicable distrust. And Lukács, who was at the time at a spa (a characteristically Victorian touch), came to Berlin to speak at Brecht’s funeral. Survival had become Lukács’s métier.

Great shades crowd his tenacious, often unforgiving remembrance. Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Karl Mannheim were among his teachers or colleagues. Though their theoretic and pragmatic ways parted, Lukács retains to the end his respect for the messianic innocence of Ernst Bloch. When he was commissar for education and culture under Béla Kun, the young Lukács recruited for his committee on music Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály and Ernst Dohnányi. Imperial and insurrectionary Budapest was small enough to bring talent, and Jewish talent in particular, into implosive proximity. In the sphere of art-history, Lukács knew and interacted with Frederik Antal, Arnold Hauser and the formidable Charles de Tolnay. The Polányis were intimates. And it is just this unrecapturable wealth of emotional-intellectual exchange, this very late (last?) season of European humanism, which gave to Lukács’s early essays, gathered in Die Seele und die Formen, their delicate, penetrative sadness (witness the pioneering article on Kierkegaard). This is the “Walter Benjamin” hour in Lukács. He was to repudiate it, as he was to repudiate Benjamin himself for his hermeticism and tragic untimeliness.

In these conversations, Lukács scorns the teutonic-bourgeois notion of a Lebenswerk, of an opera omnia leather-bound for ages to come. Books, he rules, are provisional acts in the validating or, more often, negating context of historical-social-material conditions. Nevertheless, major phases of concentration and discursive form do emerge, not only in the writings themselves, but in the distinctions drawn by Lukács in retrospect. After the experimental and pre-Marxist attempts at establishing a methodological basis for “impressionism” (there can, of course, be no such basis), came the years of applied criticism, of consolidation in the guiding light of Lukács’s study, in Moscow, of Marx’s 1844 manuscripts. The tomes on French and German realism, on the young Hegel, on the historical novel (with the key revaluation of Walter Scott), on the Goethe-Schiller correspondence, constitute a massive ensemble. Though bitterly attacked for its partisan crudity, Die Zerstörung der Vernunft still strikes me as a challenging indictment. Lukács asks: what are the affinities between, the continuities from, German Idealist and post-Idealist metaphysics and psychology (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) and the barbarism which ensued? The tone in which he poses the question is, too often, one of vulgar simplification and philippic. The question, however, is fundamental. More damaging to Lukács’s stature as a literary critic-historian is the omission from his theory and reading of the novels of Proust, of Joyce, of Kafka. The doctrinal reasons for this omission, the lacunae of sensibility which it reveals, are not difficult to place. But the diminution of responsible perception is, no less than in the strangely parallel case of F. R. Leavi’s defensive parochialism, drastic.

The final phase was taken up by “more serious matters”. It saw the production of the voluminous, although incomplete, Aesthetik, and of the Ontologie, a massive torso of which much has appeared posthumously. To the latter Lukács attached supreme significance. Without an explicit ontological foundation, Marxist interpretations of history, of literature, of man’s activities of consciousness, would remain vulnerable to contingency and tactical misuse. Lukács was intent on formulating with methodological precision the quintessence of Marxism: “Menschenwerdung des Menschen als Inhalt des Gesichts-prozesses, der sich – sehr variiert – in jedem einzelnen menschlichen Lebenslauf verwirklicht. So ist jeder Einzelmensch – einerlei, mit wieviel Bewusstheit – aktiver Faktor im [des] Gesamtprozesses, dessen Produkt er zugleich ist.” (“The humanization of man as the content of the process of history which – very variously – is realized in the course of every human life. Thus, every individual – no matter how consciously – is an active ingredient in this total historical process, of which he is at the same time the product.”) It does not seem to me that Lukács’s late, systematic treatises, contribute very much to the exposition, let alone fulfilment of this ideal of “man’s becoming man”, of the dialectical reciprocities which Lukács proclaimed as functional between the individuality of each human persona and the “collective”, “totalizing process” (where Prozess also means “trial” of history. But I may well be wrong, and the Ontologie, with its, perhaps, unconscious attempts at “counter-echoing” the detested Heidegger, will need to be lived with.

One’s sense of the core of Lukács, as it comes through also in the fascinating gallery of the photographs taken of him just before his death, is completely summarized in a remark he makes to his interview. He attributes his personal survival during the Moscow purges to the fact that the NKVD found his living quarters so wretched as to make seizure unprofitable. Should we recoil from so abjectly opportunistic and cynical a causality? Not at all. The conduct of the Stalinist hoodlums was an “objective” reflection of and response to the inevitable housing crisis of Soviet cities at that moment. One can her Lukács-Naphta saying that.

There is in Lukács’s life and works a creative “duplicity”. Brought up in a household of great wealth and Central European culture, he assumed, as a matter of course, that the values to be realized by man and society are those of the spirit, of the thinking intellect. Consciously or not, he laboured throughout his whole existence to secure these essentially conservative ideals, to make the world not only “safe for”, but actively answerable to Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac or Thomas Mann. He sensed, long before others, that the ultimate threat to such aims stemmed from what he knew or imagined to be “Amerika”, the mass-consumer utopias of immanence. Even the Gulag (this is evident in Lukács’s beautifully receptive monograph on the early Solzhenitsyn) is less of a peril to the life of the spirit than is the detergent tide of “Americanism” – and all technocratic-capitalism must strive to become “America”.

In the “Americas” of the West, there are no necessary bonds between the activities of the artist or thinker on one hand, and those of the political and market-forces on the other. To Lukács, the Western intellectual was a more or less privileged, a more or less despised, parasite or entertainer. For all its ambiguities, for all its compromises and even humiliations – the famous self-criticism in regard to History and Class-Consciousness – Lukács’s personal life and the books he thought and wrote, had gone in hand in hand with historical reality. They mattered intensely. The phrase which he used to characterize what he foresaw as the condition of dons, littérateurs and pundits in “the free world” was “ein behaglicher Leerlauf”. Again, we have a problem of translation. Leerlauf refers to a wheel spinning emptily because it has no purchase on matter, because it is a mechanism in vacuum. “A comfortable, cossetted emptiness”. If Lukács was mistaken, many of us may still have to prove him so.


[1] Times Literary Supplement (London), 22. January 1982, 67–68.